Issue 7.3, December 2003
A project organized by the office of the National Councilor Roland Wiederkehr (Member of the Swiss Parliament), Exchange for Peace brings young people from all over the world together to discuss and share their experiences and hopes for a brighter future. The theme of this year’s event was landmines and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the field of mine action.
by Kimberly Kim, MAIC
Various forms of antique armor slowly spun over our heads in an unconventional display of arms at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. In this exhibit, dozens of half-complete suits of armor dangled on invisible wires in the form of large mobiles hanging from the ceiling of a large room. “I cannot take this anymore, would you like to come see some other exhibits with me?” whispered Safana Hadi Al-Aslloom, a young Iraqi woman who works for an Italian NGO. As we walked out of the exhibit, she said, “I could not stand it any longer in there, they looked like ghosts, the ghosts of dead soldiers. It is a horrible display.” We looked at an ornate piece of 17th-century Swiss pottery in silence. Safana was right about the exhibit; the displayed arms were a disturbing reminder of the terrible consequences of war, and the problems faced by those involved in mine action everyday.
|Participants of Exchange for Peace at a Conference in Caux, Switzerland. From the left: Natali Deluka Nathanielsz of Sri Lanka, Mila Massango of Mozambique, Kimberly Kim of the United States and Anjeela Quaymi of Afghanistan.|
Be they ancient or modern, remnants of war are a serious problem for all people. While watching those old weapons wheel above our heads, I thought about the modern explosive remnants of war lurking beneath the heels of so many in the world. Safana’s tearful words focused my thoughts on the threat currently faced by the Iraqi people. Having recently written an article about the need for victim assistance in Iraq, I recalled stories from Mine Advisory Group (MAG) people in the field about children injured by cluster bombs and Handicap International’s struggle to treat them in overcrowded hospitals. Never had I felt the need for mine action in Iraq more poignantly then that moment under the armor with a pained whisper in my ear.
The Exchange for Peace program allowed me to have many more face-to-face interviews and interactions with people from many mine-affected countries. This two-week program, sponsored by National Councilor Roland Wiederkehr, brings together young people from all over the world who are working in a specific field of global improvement. This year’s field was landmines and NGOs working in mine action. The program brought together 40 participants who were between the ages of 17 and 35 from nine countries: Mozambique, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Sri Lanka, and the United States. In their native countries, these participants work in the various fields of promoting peace in governmental institutions, NGOs, or private and economic sectors. Most worked for NGOs involved with or in cooperation with mine action efforts.
Efforts in Sri Lanka
From these participants came many stories from the field. A young man named Krishan Sarantha Wickramasinghe working for the Interfaith Fellowship for Peace and Development in Sri Lanka, told me about the mine awareness work a Buddhist monk and Catholic Priest do together in his country. As we traveled on a noiseless train from Zurich to Geneva, he told me about the time this “odd couple” was traveling down the main road, A9, to Jaffna. A group of soldiers ordered them to stop and make way for a tank. As the tank passed in front of their vehicle, it rolled over an AT mine and exploded. The pair was returning from a trip to the northern rural areas where they taught refugees who did not have access to television or radio about the dangers of landmines. Their efforts have helped immensely in the prevention of mine accidents among these people, and especially with their children.
He showed me photos of deminers in Sri Lanka using long staffs of bamboo for prodding and wearing very little, if any, personal protective equipment (PPE). Demining efforts in Sri Lanka are currently frustrated by failed negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Krishan explained that the LTTE is thinking about signing the Geneva Call, but he had little hope they would do so, since their demands for signing included cooperation from the Sri Lankan government. Without a binding agreement to stop the use of landmines, the LTTE continues to this day to plant mines in the northern parts of Sri Lanka. Natalie, A colleague of Krishan, explained how many of the victims of landmines in Sri Lanka are unable to get prostheses because they are not manufactured within in the country. Most of these victims are uninformed children who play in the jungle.
Efforts in Cambodia
In the basement cafeteria of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) headquarters in Geneva, I was able to speak at length with two participants from Cambodia. They work for Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), an NGO that focuses mostly on victim assistance and humanitarian work around the world. Led by a nun, Sister Denise, JRS Cambodia helps victims by providing them with training for the production of handicrafts and by visiting the homes of disabled victims to provide care and material assistance. JRS also goes out into rural villages and educates children and adults about the dangers of landmines.
|Jesuit Refugee Services’ representatives So Not and Cheatta Seng talk about mine action in Cambodia with the ICBL’s Susan Walker.|
Cheatta Seng, a long-time worker with JRS, shared a story about a local farmer who usually hired people to work in his fields. One week, there was a celebration in his village and his workers went to their respective homes to celebrate. Without workers, the farmer was forced to plow the land alone for the first time. As he was plowing, he drove the tractor over a part of the land usually avoided by his workers. His tractor rolled over an AT mine and exploded. A chest cavity was all that was left of his body.
Another victim that Cheatta knew was a young boy. This boy was walking to school with his friend when he had the urge to go to the bathroom. Since they were close to their “cleared” schoolhouse, the boy thought it safe to go off the road to relieve himself. He walked two to three meters from the road and stepped on an AP landmine. The school and the road leading up to it had only a two-meter surrounding perimeter demined. The boy stepped no more than three meters from the road and ended up losing his leg. Hearing this story made me realize the need for not only general mine risk education (MRE), but also for detailed education on the specific risks of landmines in a particular area. The boys knew that stepping off the road in an unknown area was dangerous, but they did not know enough about cleared areas to avoid injury.
An Encounter in Caux
The most remarkable experience I had during the Exchange for Peace program, as an ethnically South Korean-U.S. citizen and a worker in mine action efforts, was an encounter at a peace community near Geneva called Caux. In this community, I had the opportunity to meet a North Korean named Ho Chul Son. Born in Japan and having had inherited his North Korean citizenship from his grandfather, this young man traveled to Switzerland with a Japanese NGO worker to speak about his efforts in Japan to establish a friendly Korean-Japanese relationship. So Chul is hoping to start a youth camp that brings together and helps to establish relationships between Korean and Japanese teenagers. “The older generation carries too many hurts,” he explained in Korean. “We must work with the younger generation to help build a better relationship.”
As our conversation continued, we spoke about hopes for Korean reconciliation. My parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea and held a strong distrust of North Koreans. His parents likewise felt resentment and distrust of South Koreans. In our respective homes, we were distinctively South and North Korean. In Caux, however, where we were the only ones who spoke Korean, ate Korean food and lived a part of Korean culture, we were of one nation. Because of that encounter at Caux, the people of North Korea became less of a faceless threat and more of a people to me. I came to a greater understanding of their fears and hopes and gained a greater hope for a better future between our respective motherlands. Ho Chul told me about his one and only visit to North Korea. There he saw a girl who was around the same age as he, standing guard in uniform at a government building. He timidly approached her to ask, “Is it hard living as a soldier?” She responded easily, “Not at all, that’s just how it is.”
For the elder generation in power, there are a myriad of complicated problems and issues to tackle before any sort of progress is made towards a better world. But for the young, there is only the world as we have known it. Through education, we can easily bypass, “how it is” and work towards “how it can be.” We can do this because we do not carry many of the wounds of the past. My encounter with “the enemy” made me think about the debates and verbal confrontations we had at the ICBL, at the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), and even by members of the Swiss government in Bern about the United State’s refusal to sign the Ottawa Treaty. I knew the United States did not wish to sign the treaty mainly because of its use of landmines at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas. Due to my ties to both the United States and South Korea, I could not help but feel responsible for U.S. use of landmines. I also had difficulty seeing a way out towards peace between the two nations. However, through the Exchange for Peace program, I have found that reconciliation may perhaps start with something as little as a mutual understanding between two young people of opposing ethnicities. I met the “enemies” of my nation face-to-face and unexpectedly found an innocence and youthful hope for peace that sparked and mirrored my own.